After plying his auto rickshaw in New Delhi’s crowded streets for 30 years, Maam Raj Kohli has a hard time in winter when smog envelops the city.
“I get constriction. I get breathlessness. When diesel vehicles spew fumes, I get affected,” he explained.
As worsening levels of air pollution in the Indian capital impact the health of citizens, New Delhi has begun taking steps to tackle the menace. But experts are urging long-term action to clean up what the World Health Organization said is the world’s dirtiest air.
Local health professionals have also rung alarm bells about the city’s hazardous air, saying even the lungs of a healthy resident can resemble that of a smoker after some years. The most affected are young children and the elderly. The main culprit is the exceedingly high concentrations of fine particulate matter called PM2.5 that can exceed 15 times the safe limit in winter.
Dr. Randeep Guleria, who heads the pulmonary medicine department at the country’s premier public hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, calls the city’s problem “acute.”
“We have observed that in the following 48 hours of a day when levels of pollution are very, very bad, the admissions both in the casualty and the OPD [Out Patients Department] attendance goes up significantly for people with respiratory problems and even cardiac problems,” he said.
Pollution levels are worse in winter when calm weather conditions leaves the toxic haze hanging low over the city. The dirty air is the result of smoke from burning trash and leaves, construction dust, but a major problem is the fumes from the nine million vehicles that clog this city, many of them running on highly polluting diesel.
In January, Delhi’s government took the first emergency measure to curb pollution, allowing private cars with plates ending in odd and even numbers out on the roads on alternate days for two weeks to reduce the number of vehicles on the streets by about half. Although pollution levels were still high, environmentalists say they would have been even worse if more cars had been out on the roads.
The Supreme Court, which spearheaded steps 15 years ago to lessen pollution by ordering buses to switch to compressed natural gas, is once again at the helm of efforts to control pollution.
Last month, the top court banned trucks over 10 years old from entering the city and has halted the sale of luxury diesel vehicles in Delhi. Taxis have been ordered to switch to cleaner, compressed natural gas by the end of March.
But as the number of days when pollution is “severe” continues to spike, environmental experts are urging longer-term measures such as scaling up the city’s notoriously poor public transport.
Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at New Delhi’s Center of Science and Environment, wants authorities in the city to control the exponential growth in private vehicles by emulating what some cities like Hong Kong and Singapore have done and imposing stiffer taxes on car users.
“We have made it very easy to own and use a car and not make them pay the real cost of using public space for parking, using the road space for driving. This hidden subsidy has made usage of [a] car much cheaper in Delhi, and therefore there is no control, no restraint on cars,” she said.
Authorities are paying some heed. They say they will boost public transport by adding more buses and bring back car rationing in the summer.
Delhi residents have welcomed these steps to tackle the city’s problem, alarmed by studies outlining the long-term impact on health.
“People living in Delhi for a long time have a much higher chance of health disease, strokes as compared to those living in cities where levels of pollution are low,” warns Doctor Guleria.
After watching one of her two school-age sons battle wheezing and eye allergies related to air pollution, Shivani Dayal Kapoor, said she has vowed to reduce her family’s car trips despite the inconvenience that this causes.
“Everyday I am thinking, oh God, how am I going to send Jay for his cricket, how am I going to figure this out, but it has to be done. It’s just a way of life we take to get used to.”
Environmentalists hope such rising public awareness and changing attitudes will give momentum to the small beginning made by the Indian capital in tackling its air pollution crisis.